WNC Travel Guide

Surrounded by piles of debris, old wood and gravel, Joe Rowland sees opportunity. “This is the inevitable next step for us,” he said.

Co-owner of Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City, Rowland wanders around a four-acre lot at the end of Depot Street, less than a block from the flagship brewery. Purchased by Rowland in early 2016, the property consisted of an abandoned warehouse (formerly the RC Cola bottling company) and large open field. Initially, the 11,000-square-foot building was going to be used for Nantahala’s equipment storage, barrel aging program and bottling line.

Surrounded by piles of debris, old wood and gravel, Joe Rowland sees opportunity. “This is the inevitable next step for us,” he said.

Co-owner of Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City, Rowland wanders around a four-acre lot at the end of Depot Street, less than a block from the flagship brewery. Purchased by Rowland in early 2016, the property consists of an abandoned warehouse (formerly the RC Cola bottling company) and large open field. Initially, the 11,000-square-foot building was going to be used for Nantahala’s equipment storage, barrel aging program and bottling line. But, as time went along, an idea for the remaining 3,200 square feet of unused space crept into the minds of Rowland and Co. — a restaurant and indoor/outdoor brew pub.

art nantahalaIn a long-awaited strategic move, Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City will soon be putting the final touches on the purchase of a nearby bottling company.

art frIt’s a recent Saturday afternoon at Nantahala Brewing Company in downtown Bryson City. With bluebird skies overhead and the mountains of Southern Appalachia in the distance, brewery co-owner Joe Rowland scans his surroundings. There are children and dogs running around the front porch, with folks from Asheville, Atlanta, Charlotte and everywhere in-between raising their glasses high to another day in paradise.

art frIn the last two weeks, Joe Rowland has soaked in the California sunshine, rafted the Grand Canyon, wandered the Rocky Mountains, gone skydiving and tamed the endless cornfields of the Midwest, all the while cruising the country in a rock star tour bus. 

He’s also been drinking a lot of beer along the way — a lot of beer. 

Beer brewing in Bryson City just took on a whole new look this weekend when Nantahala Brewing Company threw open the doors of its brand new tasting room. The town’s fledgling brewery welcomed friends and fans into its front room on Depot Street, which they’ve transformed into a rustic, high-ceiling tasting room – a beer bar to accompany the brewing operation that’s been cranking in the back for some time now.

Joe Rowland, head of the company’s marketing and part owner of the business, said that they’re thrilled to be able to serve their own brews. In fact, said Rowland, it’s the key to their business model, along with the self-distribution plan they’ve been working in the area.

“We want to be the beer destination in the area,” said Rowland, and with their tasting room just across the street from the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, they hope to pull in the droves of tourists that flock to the town in warmer weather.

For now, they’re pulling four of their own taps – Noon Day IPA, Appalachian Trail Extra Pale Ale, Bryson City Brown Ale and Eddy Out Stout – as well as a couple of guest spots reserved for brews from neighboring Greenman Brewing in Asheville. But Rowland says that they hope one day soon to be serving upwards of 20 different beer varieties, some of their own mixed with the plethora of other local brewers in the region.

And the region is replete with hometown craft breweries, a product, said Rowland, of the friendly environment North Carolina offers breweries.

Though the brewery taxes are high, he said, this is one of the only places in the country that affords beer-makers the right of self-distribution, allowing them to sell and send to restaurants, bars and stores themselves, cutting out the costly middleman.

Still, said Rowland, opening up in such a small location that’s so reliant on seasonal tourist traffic hasn’t been an easy proposition for the company, owned by himself and brewer Chris Collier.

“The brewing community is a very small community,” said Rowland, “and most of our friends thought we were insane.”

But sanity notwithstanding, they’ve been successful so far, getting their products into stores and restaurants from Weaverville to Murphy and even scoring places in Charlotte and Winston Salem.

Rowland said he was thrilled by the local response to the tasting room’s opening, too; they welcomed more than 120 visitors on Friday night alone, with only a few days’ notice.

“It’s been pretty huge,” said Rowland of the response, and with the opening comes a solution to one of the company’s perennial problems — regular hours.

When it was just a brewery, it wasn’t always easy for eager customers to catch someone at the warehouse. Now, those in search of a good beer and a good time know just when and where to come for them.

And for such a small community, Rowland said the regional response to their product has been pretty impressive.

“There’s a huge appetite for it here,” Rowland said.

This doesn’t really surprise Paul Gatza. He’s the director of the Brewer’s Association, a national organization that pretty much lives up to its straightforward name.

“All the consumer trends are pointing to a bright future for craft breweries,” said Gatza, which is good news for locals like Nantahala.

Technically speaking, a craft brewery is small, independent and brews their product in line with traditional beer-making techniques.

And those are qualities that appeal greatly to younger American consumers, even in this slouchy economy. While the major domestic breweries have shown a downturn in profits, the craft-brew revolution has meant a spike in profit for craft breweries, even in the most dire recession years.

“I think especially with the younger legal-drinking-age adults, they’ve been able to discover the world of craft beers themselves,” said Gatza. “There’s qualities of the small, local, independent that they can identify with in themselves.”

And with North Carolina being one of the most craft-brewery friendly states in the nation, it’s no wonder that last year, Asheville snatched the annually bestowed Beer City USA title from Portland, Ore., long crowned the nation’s best city for finding good brews.

Rowland and his company are happy to ride that craft-brew wave, and he’s confident enough in their product that even if the wave crests, they’ll still find an audience willing to shell out for the taste and experience that no other shop in the city can offer.

The very beginning of the Nantahala Brewing Company story began — appropriately — at a local bar.

Mike Marsden had long thought the 1,200-square-foot warehouse adjacent to Across the Trax, the bar he owns in Bryson City, would be perfect for a brewery.

While enjoying a drink at another local establishment, a bartender friend introduced him to a couple sitting at the other end of the bar. It was Chris and Christina Collier, award-winning home brewers who had long dreamt of someday opening their own brewery.

By the end of the night, the three were excitedly sketching out details on a cocktail napkin. With Joe Rowland and Ken Smith signing up as partners along the way, the Nantahala Brewery has finally opened its doors for business a year later.

At this point, the brewery is serving up five varieties of beer. The Colliers — who are nationally certified beer judges — say their aim is not so much to appeal to a mass audience as to please the “beer geeks.”

The company is offering the Nantahala Pale Ale and the Eddy Out Stout, but its two most popular brews so far have been the Bryson City Brown, a smooth brown ale, and the Noon Day IPA, which carries a heavy West Coast influence and a hoppy, grapefruit-inspired taste.

This summer, the Nantahala Brewery is also brewing batches of Depot Street Summer Wheat, a spicy German hefeweizen with hints of cloves and bananas. Nantahala Light, a crisp and easy German pilsner, is on the way.

The brewery is already selling its offerings at an increasing number of restaurants and bars in Bryson City, Sylva, Waynesville, Asheville and Murphy, along with a few grocery stores and at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Rowland says his company is hoping to churn out 600 to 1,000 barrels of beer this year, even though its equipment can produce a much higher output. Chris Collier says he’d like to see the Nantahala Brewery maintain a personal touch rather than become large-scale.

“It appeals to me keeping it small, keeping it simple,” said Chris Collier.

According to Marsden, Nantahala’s craft beers thus far have gotten a great response at Across the Trax. More visitors are looking for local brews, and Asheville’s status as a nationally recognized beer town hasn’t hurt.

“The biggest thing about it is it’s fresh,” said Marsden. Many breweries produce quality beer, but by the time it’s delivered, it’s already a few months old. Nantahala’s brews, on the other hand, arrive less than two weeks after they’re ready, Marsden said.

Those who enjoy sampling the fresh local beer at Across the Trax are often invited to see where the magic happens next door. It’s not often that people can get that close to their brewers, but Christina Collier would like to see that change.

“I think every town should have a local brewery,” said Christina Collier. “It should be like a local bakery.”

Right now, Nantahala Brewing Company gets most of its hops from the Pacific Northwest. It hopes to gradually get more from Western North Carolina to use late in the process, which helps create a stronger aroma in the beer.

The Nantahala Brewery’s tasting room is in the process of being set up, but the space is generally open to anyone who wants a tour.

Though the fledgling company has worked hard to renovate its warehouse space, most customers don’t immediately recognize the progress that’s been made when they walk in. They only see a gaping space with brewing equipment and nowhere to sit.

But even getting that huge equipment up and running was a challenge for the newcomers.

“This was just a shell before,” said Christina Collier, who spent a chilly winter helping paint the 30-foot walls inside an inviting blue.

By the time the tasting room is set up and retailers move into adjacent spaces within the warehouse, though, Nantahala Brewery hopes to become a popular destination in Bryson City.

According to Christina Collier, other breweries in the area probably won’t mind the competition. There’s more cooperation than competition among brewers, she said.

“Everybody wants everybody else to succeed,” said Christina Collier. “It looks bad for small-town microbreweries to fail.”

 

Want to try?

 

Check out http://nantahalabrewing.wordpress.com/where-to-buy to find out where you can sip some of Nantahala Brewing Company’s offerings. The brewery also offers growlers.

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